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The Third Nuclear Age

Sometimes a gun isn't just a gun. About 740,000 assault rifles and pistols are stored in Swiss homes or in private possession.  Nobody knows the exactly how many firearms are in circulation, but there may be up to 1.3 million firearms in Switzerland. Despite this you are more likely to murdered by knife than by gun. "Police statistics for the year 2006  records 34 killings or attempted killings involving firearms, compared to 69 cases involving bladed weapons and 16 cases of unarmed assault. Cases of assault resulting in bodily harm numbered 89 (firearms) and 526 (bladed weapons)"

Sometimes a nuke isn't just a nuke. The country with the largest known deposits of uranium, which tested 7 nuclear devices on its soil in the 50s and whose head of government isn't even going to attend President Obama's nonproliferation summit won't keep statesmen up at night.  It's Australia.  The first thing its scientists did after devising a way to enrich uranium with lasers (SILEX) was worry about keeping it out of the wrong hands.

The danger posed by weapons is crucially dependent on their human modifiers. Guns in the hands of the Swiss are not the same as guns in the hands of a Sudanese militia. Enriched uranium in Australia is no worry; but uranium in the hands of Kim Jong Il is. It is changes to the political environment that create or diminish the problem even when the hardware remains the same. Professor Paul Bracken describes the advent of the Second Nuclear Age, in which we now live, in terms of a change in the actors not a change in the weapons.

The second nuclear age is defined by the spread of nuclear weapons to countries for reasons other than the Soviet-American Cold War rivalry, which was the defining aspect of the first nuclear age. ... [It is] an n-player game—a multiplayer game. Game theory tells us that even three player duels create great complexity. Equilibrium and stability are harder to achieve. ...

[In the Second Nuclear Age] nuclear weapons have become an essential part of state-building programs ... They symbolize state power. Armies used to serve this role ... [it is now] the preferred method poor states use to demonstrate power." ...

In the first nuclear age, no states or institutions could retard the expansion of the Soviet and American nuclear arsenals. Today's emerging nuclear states struggle to get the established powers and institutions off their backs. States give up their programs under US and international pressure. ...

In the first nuclear age, both superpowers were relatively rich. The new nuclear powers are generally poor. They cannot afford the kind of control systems the superpowers had. ...

Today's nuclear weapons states can observe states who went nuclear in the past to find out what works. ... A second mover may wait and then suddenly play its hand—for instance by weaponizing its nuclear capacity and generating sudden instability.

The Second Age represents both the triumph and the ultimate failure of the NPT. Bracken writes that "the superpowers cooperated in a very successful nonproliferation regime—the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Some think that the NPT failed, but the treaty succeeded for twenty-five years. At the time the NPT was framed, the hope was to delay proliferation for five to ten years. Instead it worked for twenty-five—into the nineties.."

What kept nuclear weapons contained was the coercive power of the superpowers themselves. Just as the policeman ultimately relies on firearms to restrict firearms, it was the concentration of power in the bipolar world, as manifested by nuclear weapons, that kept everyone in line. Now the power is diffused. Even the United States, speaking through Barack Obama, has declared it will refrain from using nukes except in defined circumstances.

The key to understanding the difficulty of the nonproliferation problem is to realize that the core of the difficulty is a human one. Above all it is a question of who has nuclear weapons; it is one of legitimacy and rationality rather than technology.  Bracken noted that the Second Nuclear Age required a "massive change to intelligence programs" precisely because the problem consisted of monitoring the who. The billions of dollars that the Obama administration is prepared to spend on buying fancy locks and safeguards for Pakistan and other Second Age countries may be more useful in terms of developing intelligence contacts within their nuclear establishments than for buying the safeguards themselves. It's not what's in the vaults that is the problem, it is who can get to use them.

As technology is diffused nonproliferation will essentially become a human management problem. The SILEX enrichment process exemplifies how technological advances created regulatory and political problems. SILEX uses lasers "drawing no more electricity than a dozen homes" not centrifuges, to refine fissile material. One of its developers, Dr. Francis Slakey said:

"This next generation technology is so efficient and so small that we would no longer be able to see it with our satellites and we would no longer be able to detect whether there was some power source going into it, because it uses so little power ... Historically every enrichment technology - that is every technology that has been used to develop nuclear fuel, every single one of them - has proliferated despite best efforts to keep the secret ... Those rogue countries that may pursue a technology don't do it unless it's been industrially proven, and so prior to that if it's just bench science or R and D [research and development], they don't go that path."

Under a deal with the US in 1998, development of the technology was transferred to the United States and in 2001 SILEX was classified.

Now General Electric Hitachi wants a licence from US regulators to build the world's first SILEX plant in North Carolina.

It's great stuff. The only problem is how long can one control the who? One interesting question posed by Barack Obama's speech at the Prague nonproliferation summit is whether the world has gone from a short Second Age directly into the beginnings of a Third Nuclear Age, one in which not countries but proxies -- and poorly controlled proxies at that -- hold the power of life and death over millions. The President's speech largely addressed Second Age issues and then went further. Obama raised the possibilty that nonstate organizations would get the bomb.

So let me be clear: Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile activity poses a real threat, not just to the United States, but to Iran's neighbors and our allies. The Czech Republic and Poland have been courageous in agreeing to host a defense against these missiles. As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven. If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for missile defense construction in Europe will be removed.

So, finally, we must ensure that terrorists never acquire a nuclear weapon. This is the most immediate and extreme threat to global security. One terrorist with one nuclear weapon could unleash massive destruction. Al Qaeda has said it seeks a bomb and that it would have no problem with using it. And we know that there is unsecured nuclear material across the globe. To protect our people, we must act with a sense of purpose without delay.

So soon? And who is this "we"? During the First Age, "we" clearly referred to the members of the Security Council who, more than any words written on paper, were responsible for the relative longevity of nonproliferation. They gave force to the letter of the treaty, which after all, did not enforce itself. Obama's nuclear summit is clearly an attempt to create a new "we" with one important difference: it already mirrors the Second Age. With the US President backpedaling on America's pre-eminence the world is left with a multipolar "we"; an n-player game, one capable of complex outcomes and perhaps no attainable stability. Already the danger is that the nuclear summit will follow the fate of the Kyoto Agreement -- a broad statement of platitudes that everyone -- except the scrupulous West intends to renege upon. National Security Council Chief of Staff Denis McDonough admitted that the summit would produce no binding commitments, no enforcement mechanism.

Garrett: How do you respond to those that point out that the communique is not binding and not enforceable?

McDonough: Well, you know, that's a, I, I guess I think that's a fair criticism, Major, but the bottom line is what we're doing here is bringing people together to affirm what I think everybody recognizes is a principle threat for all of us -- namely, loose nuclear materials in the hands of terrorists who will use that material. ...

Garrett: As a candidate, Sen. Obama promised to spend $1 billion to augment international efforts to monitor and secure loose nuclear materials. He has asked Congress for hundred of millions this year. Will Congress provide it?

McDonough: Well I think there's been a series of uh, observations made by Republicans and Democrats in the Congress that we have to invest the kind of resources necessary in this challenge.

Not nearly enough, and not nearly the will that will be necessary to make it stick. If the past is any guide, a Second Age nonproliferation enforcement mechanism will be less effective than that of the First Age. Perhaps the world may achieve a new equilibrium based on the condition of universal armament rather than a World Without Nuclear Weapons; a peace based on terror rather brotherly love. And the reason, if it comes to pass, will be simple. The world tried to achieve via arms control what it feared to attempt via democratization. It tried to control the weapons, and in a fit of politically correct absentmindedness, remembered only too late it was about the men.

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